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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #9 (February 28, 2006), page 13.
One upright man in the middle of so much bad history
For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire
By former U.S. Army Captain James Joseph Yee
Published by PublicAffairs, 2005
Hardcover, 240 pages, $24.00
In a U.S. Defense Department, Joint Task Force Guantánamo Bay, Pretrial Confinement Memo dated Sept. 13, 2003, the subject of the communication, U.S. Army Capt. James J. Yee is noted as charged with mutiny and sedition, aiding the enemy, and espionage. Pretty serious stuff. In fact, Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, Guantánamo Bay Commander, indicates in the document that Capt. Yee’s alleged crimes carry the potential of the death penalty.
This is how ugly things looked for Chinese-American West Point grad and U.S. Army Muslim chaplain Capt. James Joseph Yee during that dark fall of 2003. He was three days into solitary confinement in a Florida Navy brig. He was three days lost, without a word to his wife, waiting for his return at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport. It would be another 10 days before she learned, at the same time as the rest of the nation learned over network TV news, that her husband was implicated in the biggest spy ring story since the Rosenberg case during the 1950s red scare.
Two American stories
For God and Country is two kinds of stories. The first is a familiar American one about a New Jersey suburban station wagon kid, confirmed in his community’s Lutheran Church, a high school jock who made his family proud by following Dad into the Army but doing him one better by getting into West Point. But then bad things happen: The second story takes James Yee on a wild turn off America’s mainstream dream — a young officer’s ideals, a dutiful Muslim’s military career, are suddenly crushed; an honorable institution’s Constitutional promises are recklessly neglected.
For God and Country is a cautionary parable. The consequences of our country’s getting this right are enormous. Ironically, in the middle of it all the author’s tone is measured. Mr. Yee is military throughout, disciplined in emotion and direct in language. He reads like a serious junior officer, dictating a narrative at the end of another demanding workday. Earnest and single-minded about his mission.
In Chapter 7, he writes, "Because the mishandling of Qur’ans had become such an issue, Major General Miller told me to read the entire SOPs [Guantánamo’s first religious-rights Standard Operating Procedures were drafted by Capt. Yee] over the Camp Delta intercom system … The SOPs helped ease tensions, but only temporarily. Many MPs [uniformed Military Police] ... continued to go out of their way to abuse the Qur’ans." Mr. Yee goes on to detail his observations and conversations. Very tidy, super straight.
Even the book’s most aching passages, read without breathing, come across as objective as a stiff-upper-lipped military academy man can deliver. For example, after the Army unabashedly dropped all its dramatic espionage and treason charges against Capt. Yee, prosecutors suddenly turned intensely personal, alleging that he had naked women in his laptop and that he had an affair with a female Army officer during his deployment at Guantánamo. Mr. Yee writes: "The new allegations were all over the papers. I felt my misery was never going to end. I called Huda [his Arab Muslim wife] … Huda told me that when she had learned of the new accusations, she had searched out my Smith and Wesson .38 …
"‘I’m holding it in one hand,’ she told me, ‘and two rounds in the other.’
"‘Put it down,’ I said firmly, fear rising inside me.
"‘Tell me how to use it,’ she whispered."
For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire ends with a copy of a Defense Department Memorandum written by the same general who administered Army Chaplain James Joseph Yee’s exemplary tour of duty at Guantánamo Bay, the same commander who approved his arrest for the most heinous crimes under the U.S. Military Code, and who subsequently authorized Capt Yee’s humiliation before his anguished family and his Muslim community. The March 19, 2004 memo dismisses all military justice charges against the author.
One memo ending one career, one modest man in the middle of an anxious nation, one episode in a story of America’s struggling to stay true to our delicate ideals.
* * *
From The Asian Reporter, V16, #9 (February 28, 2006), page 12 and 13.
The accidental activist
Yousef Yee, a humble Muslim cleric, and our awesome American Constitution
News analysis by Polo
When I was 23, young enough to know nothing, old enough to know better, I was in some kind of hurry to get from the University of Oregon’s Gerlinger Hall to another appointment. Where, I cannot recall right now. Why, doesn’t matter for this story.
What does matter happened maybe twenty meters after Gerlinger’s heavy double oak doors shut behind me. In my rush I cut across our campus commons. In my haste I heard, if barely, if absentmindedly, something like a cannonball slapping its way through fifty feet of leafy black walnut.
I remember a white flash. I remember a bone-shuddering bam. I remember wanting badly for my eyes not to roll back into unconsciousness, and willing desperately that my knees not buckle.
I was struck square center, top of my cranium, by one ugly Oregon walnut. The kind that dents Camry hoods. Same mass as a small apple, terminal velocity about 80 kilometers per hour.
There are of course many ways of describing this intersection of boy and bomb. In the West we measure time and distance and mathematical probability. In the East, we think about ancestors whispering, about Allah talking.
From Jimmy to Yousef
James Joseph Yee, third-generation American-born Chinese ("Jimmy" to his suburban Springfield, New Jersey station wagon parents) and top-drawer West Point graduate was also 23 when he emerged from the flank of a U.S. Air Force transport plane into the white glare of the Sa’ud Kingdom. The U.S. Army had assigned him to a Patriot-missile battery protecting a prominent Royal Saudi Air Base on the edge of the Persian Gulf.
At the time, Lt. James Yee was already on a spiritual road away from his family’s Lutheran roots. It was a path that probably most Chinese Americans, already settled into post-modern urban values, would find novel. It was certainly a direction some sectors of the United States military establishment would find alarming. James Yee was on his way to Mecca.
Maybe there were warnings, walnuts — or as men in artillery circles are wont to say, shots across the bow — about Lt. Yee’s approaching an awful intersection of colliding American inclinations. Certainly, he says in retrospect, warnings were everywhere. He sets out the danger signals and the crash of his military career in his recently published memoir, For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire (PublicAffairs, 2005).
Today, former U.S. Army Captain and Muslim Chaplain Yousef Yee lives with his wife and daughter just up the road in Olympia, Washington. In December, he was before downtown Portland’s packed First Unitarian Church along with Oregon ACLU Executive Director David Fidanque. Mr. Fidanque spoke on the erosion of American civil liberties on the eve of Congressional reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act. Mr. Yee talked about his sudden fall from grace as one of the military’s exemplary Muslim servicemen, evidence of the institution’s eager post-9/11 effort to understand, even embrace Islam.
In fact, Army Chaplain Yousef Yee’s demise was not so much the proverbial fall as it was a tortured tumble under a court martial administered under the command of Gen. Geoffrey Miller.
Patriot to traitor
Gen. Miller was in charge of the Army’s detention prison and interrogation facilities at Guantánamo Bay during Capt. Yee’s mission between November 2002 and September 2003. In August 2003, the Pentagon sent Gen. Geoffrey to Iraq to improve the Army’s intelligence extraction policies and practices. According to Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba’s official report on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, court martial defendants attributed their excessive practices to Gen. Miller’s interrogation policies. Among them: authorizing prison guards to "be actively engaged in setting the conditions for successful exploitation of internees." That is, allegedly allowing untrained and undisciplined American service men and women to "soften up" prisoners with cruel and humiliating practices.
Some of the most sadistic incidents of sexualized practices were captured in grinning trophy shots by the guards, later leaked to American media, ultimately ending up on the enraged Arab street.
As a dutiful soldier and a loyal U.S. Army officer, Capt. Yee kept strictly to his mission at Guantánamo’s Camp Delta. His task was providing spiritual counsel to Muslim prisoners. Inmates at peace contribute to a secure facility; angry ones threaten order. Capt. Yee was credited by Guantánamo command for implementing the first standard operating procedures for observing Islamic religious rights and for mediating cross-cultural conflicts. He was cited for his contributions of keeping chaos at bay.
He has likewise remained deliberately orderly in his public lectures and in his writings, staying solidly factual about his personal observations on the highly polarized partisan debate about the legality of prisoner treatment. Before his Portland audience, Mr. Yee’s strongest statement was "they (Camp Delta commanders) used Islam as a weapon, they used The Holy Qur’an as a tool, in their mission."
According to Capt. Yee, probably because of his soldier’s focus on duty, maybe on account of his total emotional and physical commitment after his long hard year inside the walls of hot and tense Camp Delta, he was completely stunned when on September 10, 2003 FBI, Army, and Navy officers arrested him on his way home to his wife waiting at Sea-Tac Airport. He vanished from public sight.
It wasn’t until two weeks later that CNN reported from an anonymous official source that Capt. Yee was allegedly caught in unauthorized possession of classified documents including "diagrams of the cells and the facilities at Guantánamo [Bay, Cuba]," as well as lists of imprisoned enemy combatants and lists of their interrogators. Capt. Yee’s wife learned at the same moment as the rest of the nation that her husband was "believed to have ties to [radical Muslims in the U.S.] that are now under investigation." In short: espionage and treason in time of war. Crimes for which a soldier can be executed.
In his book For God and Country, an otherwise tightly told former military officer’s memoir, the most emotionally harrowing episodes are about Capt. Yee’s anguished hours alone, behind bars, only imagining what his young wife and baby girl must be enduring in his absence, in the absence of even any information about him. It seems that when those extraordinary spiritual intersections happen, many others — some dear, some not even near — are impacted. Often profoundly.
Isolation to redemption
Yousef Yee ultimately emerged after 76 days of solitary confinement in the same Navy brig holding other headline news offenders: American Yaser Esam Hamdi, accused of fighting U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and former Chicago felon Jose Padilla, originally held for plotting to build and blow up a radioactive dirty bomb in America (later changed to charges of criminal conspiracy abroad). At the time of his release from two and a half months of dark isolation, Capt. Yee had yet to face those charging him with the most severe military crimes on the books; he had not spoken to a lawyer, he had never been before a judge. Basic Constitutional values, not to mention the most fundamental notions of fairness in civil society, were denied him.
After further humiliation in the grind of the military justice system, the Army dropped its espionage and treason charges, but insisted on dishonorably discharging the captain who had earlier been its exemplary Muslim career officer. The charges: pornography on his laptop and intimacy with another soldier. Gen. Miller, the commander administering Capt. Yee’s court martial, later again dropped those allegations. Yousef James Yee was honorably discharged from his military service to the United States of America.
In postscript to a story that should have been a tale about an important opportunity for deeper ethno-cultural integration of the American experience into the U.S. military — at a time when our strategic and tactical outcomes are awfully limited by the lack of Muslim contribution to projections of American power abroad — James Joseph Yee, the kid from suburban New Jersey, has become a national civil-rights speaker. The accidental Constitutional advocate. As Yousef Yee, that very same man with his curt military academy cut also teaches the imperatives of The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) at a modest mosque in Olympia, Washington. Those extraordinary intersections can humble the pedestrian, and commandeer the spirit.
Geoffrey D. Miller, former commander at Guantánamo Bay, the general flown to Iraq specifically to set up Abu Ghraib prison’s interrogation operation, declined last month to testify in court martial proceedings against two U.S. Army soldiers accused of cruelly using dogs on Arab prisoners. Maj. Gen. Miller invoked his right not to give testimony that might incriminate him. At the same time, Geoffrey Miller’s military lawyer announced the general’s plans to retire from the U.S. Army.
At the end of his December address before downtown Portland’s Unitarian Church, Mr. Yee thanked his audience for patiently listening to his story. "Because whoever doesn’t thank the people," he said, expressing an ethos central to Islam, "doesn’t thank God Almighty." A Constitutional argument would sound exactly the same.
Nota: Seattle Times reporter Ray Rivera spent seven months investigating the enemy spy case against Capt. Yee. He interviewed over 70 people, reviewed more than 1,000 pages of documents at Guantánamo Bay, Jacksonville Naval Air Station in Florida, Washington, D.C., and Travis Air Force Base in California, among other locations. The Seattle Times published Mr. Rivera’s work in a series of special reports (January 9-16, 2005) titled "Suspicion in the Ranks." The series, along with supporting documents, source interviews, and photos, can be viewed on the daily newspaper’s website at <www.seattletimes.com>